Saratoga Race Course is tipping its top hat to John Morrissey, the Irish-born fighter-gambler-politician who punched his way to national fame before the Civil War, launched what’s now the nation’s oldest racetrack and got elected to public office in New York despite scant formal education and an unsavory background.
The Irish American Heritage Museum in Albany is using the track’s Irish-American Day on Wednesday to highlight Morrissey’s role in establishing Saratoga’s first racing meet in 1863 and his opening of the race course at its current location a year later. The museum will have several panels from its recent Morrissey exhibit on display at the track, which is also featuring Irish music, dance, food and beverages along with a visit by Noel Kilkenny, the ambassador consul general of Ireland.
Other than closures forced by moral crusaders and World War II, Saratoga Race Course has been going strong since it opened on Aug. 2, 1864. Its 146th season is underway through Labor Day.
Morrissey was born in Tipperary, Ireland, in 1831. He was a toddler when his family moved to the United States and settled in Troy, a Hudson River mill town near Albany. He dropped out of school at a young age and worked in one of the mills, but his considerable size by age 18 — 6 feet tall, 175 pounds — and pugnacity earned him a job on the docks of Troy and later Manhattan, where he caught the eye of the city’s Democratic Party machine.
Morrissey parlayed his work as a Tammany Hall enforcer into a career as a bare-knuckle prize fighter, winning major bouts that vaulted him into the national spotlight. By the start of the Civil War he had retired from boxing and focused his attention on gambling, opening casinos in New York City and Saratoga, an upstate resort town that attracted many of the nation’s wealthiest people.
Noticing that the swells had time to kill before the casinos opened in the evening, Morrissey held the first organized thoroughbred races in Saratoga on Aug. 3, 1863. The four-day event proved so popular, Morrissey and his partners moved the races to a new track across Union Avenue the following August.
Morrissey stayed behind the scenes, letting his more cultured and socially prominent backers serve as the public face of Saratoga racing.
“He was very smart in a lot of ways,” said Allan Carter, historian at the National Museum of Racing, located across the street from the racetrack. “He realized once the track opened, he shouldn’t be the head of it because of his past.”
Saratoga racing became even more popular after the Civil War ended, as rich Southerners resumed spending summers in the North. Morrissey opened a lavish casino in the middle of Saratoga, which became as well known for its various vices as for the many mineral springs that first drew visitors to the area decades earlier.
The retired boxer turned to politics after the war, serving two terms in Congress representing a Manhattan district, followed a few years later by his election to the state Senate in 1875. It was during an upstate trip in the spring of 1878 that the ailing 47-year-old Morrissey died while staying at the Adelphi Hotel, which still stands on Saratoga’s Broadway.
Today, the racetrack Morrissey started is one of the nation’s most popular, attracting hundreds of thousands of fans during its six-week summer meet. Although the grounds’ original structures are long gone, Morrissey’s legacy is on view each time some of the world’s finest thoroughbreds burst from the starting gate.
“The average track-goer, they don’t think about how did the track really come about,” said James Parillo, director of the Saratoga Springs History Museum housed in the Canfield Casino, Morrissey’s former gambling palace. “It was all because of his vision, his idea.”
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